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Interdependent Interpretations: Young Adult and “The Concept”

August 12, 2013

When a screenwriter or director includes a real-life song in a film, odds are they are using the audience’s knowledge of the song to suggest something about the film.  A disco track on the radio places the story in the late 1970s, while a sad piano ballad suggests a character whose is feeling down.  The filmmakers bank on the audience knowing the song to efficiently communicate information which may be difficult to express through action and dialogue.  But what happens when the viewer doesn’t recognize the song?

In that case, one might rely on what I’ll call interdependent interpretations: using the song to understand the film, and vice versa.

This happened to me about 18 months ago, when I first saw Young Adult (2011).  

Directed by Jason Reitman from a screenplay by Diablo Cody, Young Adult prominently features “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub, off their 1991 LP Bandwagonesque.  While it has since become one of my favorite songs, I had never heard “The Concept” when I saw Young Adult.  Thus, I may have been in danger of not getting the information which the filmmakers wished to communicate through the song.

Fortunately for me, Young Adult includes enough the song for the uninitiated to get the gist.  But I have found that my interpretation of “The Concept” is tied into the film.  That is, not only did the “The Concept” help me understand certain aspects of Young Adult, but also Young Adult affected my understanding of “The Concept”.

How the Song Affects My Take on the Film

One first hears “The Concept” during the film’s opening credits.  Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron), on her way from Minneapolis to her hometown of Mercury, hops in the car and pops in a cassette.  Soon, a wistful melody and crunchy guitars come through her speakers.  Soon she’s singing along and rewinding the tape to hear it again.  During that three-minute stretch of film, we see her listening to it three times.

Without knowing anything else about the song or the story, it’s clear that “The Concept” means a lot to Mavis.  The opening sequence and the song combine to create a nostalgic mood.  Mavis is going to her birthplace to meet up with her old high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who has just had a daughter with his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).  And even though “The Concept” was unfamiliar to me, it gave off the vibe of early 1990s alternative rock.  She’s listening to a cassette in 2011; it’s clear that Mavis wants to relive her past.

“The Concept” doesn’t just inform how we view Mavis’ mood; it serves as audio characterization.  The way that Mavis sings along to the first verse of the song suggests that she views herself the same way the song’s speaker views “she”:

She wears denim wherever she goes

Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo

Oh yeah, oh yeah

Still she won’t be forced against her will

Says she’s don’t do drugs but she does the pill

Oh yeah, oh yeah

Mavis views herself as free-spirited and cool.  She’s the girl from podunk Mercury, Minnesota, who went to the big city and became a successful writer.  Compared to everyone else from high school, she may as well be demigod.

So it’s all the more powerful when “The Concept” comes up again to shatter Mavis’ worldview.  Since it was on the mixtape that Buddy made for Mavis back in the day, “The Concept” serves as a symbol of their old relationship; it’s effectively “their song”.  So when the opening number that Beth’s band dedicates to Buddy turns out to be “The Concept”, it demonstrates that Mavis plan to win back Buddy’s affection is hopeless.  The past can’t be dragged back into the present.

How the Film Affects My Take on the Song

When I got around to listening to “The Concept”, I was confused about the pronoun shift between the verses and the chorus.  The verses are in the third-person, while the chorus (“I didn’t want to hurt you.”) is in first-person.  Whereas the verses feel like an ode to an idealized woman, the chorus comes across as an insincere apology.  How are the two to be reconciled?

I couldn’t help but think back to Young Adult, my first exposure to the song.  Since Mavis perceives herself to be the “she” in the song, it felt naturally to place Buddy as “I” and Beth as “you”.  Using the plot of the film to fill in the gaps of the song’s narrative, I concluded that “The Concept” is about a guy who wants to leave his current girlfriend for a cooler one.  It explains the pronoun shift and the tone shift between the song’s segments.

I’m not sure this is the correct interpretation of the song.  I’ve not looked into other readings of it.  But I don’t think using Young Adult to read “The Concept” is unjustified.  Assuming my interpretation is valid, the song serves as ironic commentary on the events of the movie.  Mavis has gotten the narrative backwards: she’s the “you”, not the “she”, in Buddy’s world.

I’m sure if I had heard “The Concept” beforehand I could have developed a different interpretation of the song.  But I might have also developed a different interpretation of Young Adult.  Maybe Mavis would be a more (or less) sympathetic character, depending on how I perceived the song used to characterize her.  Since I can’t undo how I first encountered either work, though, I will forever consider “The Concept” and Young Adult to be interdependent pieces.  

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From → Film & TV, Music

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